The Ventura County Board of Supervisors gave the go-ahead Tuesday for the county's Health Care Agency to apply for $135,000 in state funds for a program encouraging Latinos in Santa Paula to adopt a healthier diet.
The board's approval was the first step in a lengthy process that could result in a four-year contract award from the state Department of Health Services and a more exhaustive program that would span other communities in the county.
The goal of the program would be to reduce the incidence of early deaths among Latinos because of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to Carol Motylewski, senior health educator for the Ventura County Health Care Agency.
Diabetes, in particular, is a serious health concern because Latinos are three times more apt to develop the disease than Anglos, according to William Wright, chief of the diabetes control program at the state Department of Health Services. The two major risk factors, he said, are obesity and family history.
"A lot of the problem is dietary," Motylewski said. "We're going to try to change their attitudes, knowledge and behavior" about their food consumption and preparation.
Corn tortillas, rice and beans, three basic staples of the Mexican-American diet, are nutritious,, but when they are prepared with heavy lard and fats, these foods become quite dangerous to a diabetes-prone population, Motylewski said.
While details of the Santa Paula program have not been mapped out, it probably would involve placing educational pamphlets in medical offices, large companies, groceries and supermarkets, offering free blood-screenings, and organizing a community committee to spread word about the program.
Of Santa Paula's 23,000 residents, about 52% are Latino.
"It's a very clear population to track," said Bob Huff, a health educator for the Health Care Agency. "We'll be able to see if our intervention is working, if changes are actually a result of what we're doing."
"We'll be working with the markets," Motylewski said, "watching inventory--for example, the selling of lard. We may offer health screenings right after church. We hope to work with the media as well."
Annie Salas, owner of El Brillante, a small family-run grocery in Santa Paula, says her predominantly Latino shoppers often ask her advice on proper foods for diabetics.
"We're a mom-and-pop store," Salas said. "People come in and we tell them what we know already, what foods to buy, but it would be good to have materials to pass out, like pamphlets. I still cook all the old favorites, but in a healthier way. People from the old country are back about 50 years as far as their eating habits."
If the Ventura County project is approved by the state in mid-March, the health education program would begin July 1.
One Latino community leader, Marcos Vargas, executive director of El Concilio, a Ventura County social services organization, has been consulted by the agency about the proposed program.
He says the group seems to be tackling the problem from the correct angle.
"If the county does its homework to be culturally sensitive and use the community organizations already in place, that individuals relate to, I think there will be no opposition to such a plan," he said. "Rather, they will embrace such a program."
So far, more than 80 community health agencies from around the state have expressed interest in applying for the available state money. Only three to five will be chosen.
"We do have a good track record with the state," Motylewski said, "but you never know. Time will tell."